Tigard High students embrace exchange program
When Maggie Ward signed up to be an exchange student in Finland last summer, she wasn't expecting to come out of it with a new best friend.
Ward spent five weeks in the city of Nivala, in central Finland, as part an exchange program arranged and funded by the Tigard Rotary Club. Before she traveled to Finland, a Finnish exchange student came to Tigard for a month through the same program, which is organized through Rotary International.
"I went short-term, so someone came to America for about five weeks first," Ward said. "I liked the idea that I could show someone my culture, and then go experience theirs. And I wanted to push myself, and get out of my comfort zone."
By the end of the summer, Ward said, she'd forged a strong bond with her Finnish counterpart.
"We didn't know each other going into it," the Tigard High senior said, "and now I have a best friend in Finland."
Ward was just one of several Tigard High students to take part in a Rotary-arranged exchange program in the last year. Her classmate William Christensen spent an entire school year in the Guma Prefecture of Japan (his stay was arranged by both the Rotary and the White Salmon Fishing Club).
Christensen had four different host families, and spent his free time in Japan traveling to nearby Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo. He said that adjusting to Japanese culture did take some time, but he eventually grew accustomed to it.
"We normally greet each other with handshakes here in the U.S., but it's a lot of bowing there," he said. "Also, it's really important in their culture that you respect all the elders, people older than you, because it's a matter of respect. It's mutually understood that they have more knowledge than you. Therefore, you do what you can to cater to them."
Another culture shock for Christensen: Getting an A in a Japanese school was much more difficult than in the U.S.
"It's very rare for students to get a 90 percent in a class there," he said. "It's usually much lower than that."
But the most educational part of studying abroad for Christensen wasn't what happened in the classroom. It was the experience of living in a different country during the 2016 election, which he said was a major topic of discussion in Japan.
"Being there during the election was interesting enough, because I heard all these different people's opinions of what they thought was going on," he said. "I'm now inclined to listen to both sides of the argument, before refuting it outright."
Encountering a diversity of opinions and cultures was also an eye-opening experience for Logan Jett, a Tigard High junior who spent five weeks in Oudenaarde, Belgium, this summer. Jett described Oudenaarde as being a town similar to Tigard in some ways — but also much more diverse.
"I think the language in general was pretty tough," he said. "There they speak up to three different languages in certain areas. Having such diversity in a small area was surprising."
For Ward, the most surprising part of her time abroad was Finland's obsession with natural saunas. It's not uncommon for a Finnish family to have their own small sauna on their property, and to use it on a daily basis.
"That was very different," Ward said. "They treat that as something that is very sacred in their culture, so it was interesting to see how something like that, that people just go and sit in at the gym, becomes this big thing in their culture."
Ward's favorite part of her trip was when her host family took her on a big camping trip through Finland, Sweden and Norway. She even got to watch the sunset from the most northern part of Europe: North Cape in Norway.
Ward said that since returning to Tigard, she's found that her worldview isn't the same as it was before. Christensen said he felt the same.
"It's truly a life-changing experience, because you discover so many things about yourself that you didn't realize were good or didn't realize were bad, because all this responsibility is suddenly shifted onto you," he said. "I thought it was a great learning opportunity to find out who I really as, and how I could really get myself going in a new culture."
Or, as Jett put it: "I've just realized that there's more than Tigard, Oregon, out there."